Stretch, bend, . . . pray? From group fitness classes to mindfulness apps, health and wellness is a part of our cultural fabric more than ever. But where does faith fit in? When I was asked to write about health and wellness through a Catholic lens, my initial thoughts were that fitness is for the gym, faith is for prayer time. What does my Zumba class have to do with God?
So it was a surprise to find many connections between a strong faith life and a strong physical life. I also found some interesting discussions about why it matters to take care of your body as a gift from God and how to practice physical wellness as a follower of Christ. Turns out that “finding God in all things” can definitely apply to your morning stretches.
The spiritual and the physical
In 1943 Abraham Maslow published a theory in Psychological Review that summed up the hierarchy of human needs in order of priority and necessity. The largest and most foundational base is physiological: food, water, shelter, rest. Indeed, without these basic needs a living thing (human, animal, plant, etc.) will perish. The next tier is safety: security of body, health, and resources. While these are not imperative to survival, without them the organism will not survive long. The pyramid continues upward with fewer necessities for survival and more levels of personal fulfillment and satisfaction that humans seek.
However interesting, this psychology-based theory offers only the premise, not the means. This is where personal choices and beliefs for how to implement and attain our needs come into play, from the bottom of the pyramid to the top.
Fortunately, a handbook of sorts exists: the Bible. Through Bible study—both metaphorical and literal interpretations—Christians have a baseline of how to conduct our lives. Catholics use Jesus as the specific example of how to be good and live out God’s plan for us. Catholic doctrine focuses mainly on nourishing the spiritual self and guiding our choices, lives, and behaviors in a Christ-like manner. It doesn’t explicitly stipulate a physical care regime, although there are plenty of references in the Bible of paying as much attention to the physical self as to the spiritual self.
A few examples:
• A greeting in 3 John 1:2 says, “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul.”
• Psalm 139:14 exclaims, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works.”
• 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 asks, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”
So how does the Catholic Church address wellness culture? According to Dr. Kevin Vost, a psychologist, professor, speaker, and author, the concept of intertwining faith and fitness has always been part of the Catholic prayer tradition.
“The Catholic Church teaches that God made us beings of both matter and spirit—ensouled bodies,” Vost says. “Many early heresies proposed that matter was evil and the spiritual was the only good. While the church made clear that, as we learn in Genesis, all that God made was good, and [God] expects us to be good stewards of [God’s] creation, which includes our own bodies.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there is a clear and supportive response to connecting body to spiritual self. The catechism says, “The need to involve the senses in interior prayer corresponds to a requirement of our human nature. We are body and spirit, and we experience the need to translate our feelings externally. We must pray with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication.”
In other words, to pray with your entire being—physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally—is giving your whole self to God. This position is in line with the interpretations of Catholic thinkers and scholars. Vost notes that The Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic “incorporates different bodily postures and actions into prayer so that we can better love God in heart and mind, body and soul.”
Vost also points to St. Thomas Aquinas, a renowned philosopher, theologian, scholar, and doctor of the church. “St. Thomas wrote extensively about the goodness of material creation, including how we should love and show gratitude for our own bodies,” Vost says.
Aquinas’ writings were influential for Vost when he was researching his book Fit for Eternal Life (Sophia Institute Press), which discusses the Catholic approach to health and physical fitness. “[Aquinas] also wrote specifically about parallels between spiritual virtue and bodily fitness. For example: ‘Virtue, inasmuch as it is a suitable disposition of the soul, is like health and beauty, which are suitable dispositions of the body.’ ”
After considering this, a question gnawed at me: If the premise of integrating prayer and devotion practice with our body is natural to Catholic tradition and as God intended, what about the basic tenet that God made me just as I am, in God’s own image? If that’s true, why do I have to change my body?
Vost’s thoughts helped me better understand. “God loves us as we are and we are beings made to strive for improvement,” he says. “We see this so clearly in Christ’s teachings. He loves sinners as they are but directs them to give up sin and grow in holiness. He rewards those who do not sit on their laurels or bury their talents under the ground but rather who make the most of the gifts we are given. In a nutshell, I would say that God sure does love us as we are but expects us to make the most of our gifts.”
He adds, “Will God withhold boundless love from us if we do not sport the physique a Mr., Mrs., or Miss Universe has? I don’t think so!”
This is reassuring to the many of us who know in theory that we should make better health choices but who struggle to feel we’re doing “enough” and then feel bad about ourselves for failing. According to Vost, the catechism, and Christ’s teachings, doing our best with true intentions is a positive and valid step toward being right with God’s plan. Since our bodies are gifts from God, using our bodies in whatever capacity—lifting weights, walking in nature, stretching—with prayerful intention is a natural extension of gratitude toward God.
So what exactly does a Catholic workout look like?
Prayer in physical action
Colleen Scariano didn’t set out to develop a Catholic exercise practice but felt guided by the Holy Spirit. In 2010, after the loss of her mother, followed a few months later by the sudden deaths of her father and brother, Scariano turned to the rosary for solace and comfort. After struggling to carve out the mental and physical space she needed to be fully present in prayer, she began praying the rosary on her running route and found clarity and peacefulness in its wake.
Scariano first started combining faith and fitness as a way to multitask as a mom. She often felt distracted during her run and was unable to fully concentrate—that is, until she started praying the rosary. “There was no distraction during the rosary,” she says. “Running became the most powerful time for prayer, plus I got the physical benefit of the run. A great two-for-one.”
Soon, while on pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Scariano had an idea of putting her prayer into practice. This idea became SoulCore, an exercise program designed for and around a mindful and prayerful intention.
To put together a prayer-led exercise program, Scariano and her fellow parishioner Deanne Miller had to think through what SoulCore would look like and how it could function as a prayer source. Miller incorporated her background as a fitness instructor to make sure that all movements were accessible, modifiable, and available to anyone who sought to highlight the body-spirit connection of their prayer practice. Although the science of movement and body informs the postures, Scariano insists that prayer is the focus of the class, not how well a person is holding a particular pose or keeping form.
“The movements are simply an invitation, a way to enhance the prayer. We want to encourage people to honor [their] bodies,” says Scariano.
On its surface, SoulCore is like many other exercise classes: There are mats, dim lighting, candles, people dressed in athletic clothing. But there are also things you cannot see: mindfulness, spiritual space, devotion to prayer, a desire to help deepen each person’s relationship with God in their own way. As Scariano says, “It is a movement. It’s more than an exercise class.”
For an hour a leader guides participants through each prayer of the rosary, combining different stretches and postures to align with the intention and focus of the prayer. Scariano says leaders will have their eyes closed for much of the class so they too can stay connected to the prayer instead of walking around correcting form or posture.
Of SoulCore, Scariano says, “We discovered there’s a clarity of mind that comes with physical exercise, and physical movement helps retain knowledge. So when we integrate body and soul together in prayer, we offer God the most perfect worship, the highest form of prayer. We are both physical and spiritual. To separate one from the other, you’re not getting the fullness of each.”
What started as an idea in 2012 began to formalize in 2014 with a SoulCore workout DVD. The movement has now grown to classes offered at more than 100 parishes and worship centers around the country, plus an online studio, leadership certification, a blog, and, hopefully in the future, a dedicated studio space in the Carmel, Indiana area. The growth and popularity of SoulCore has been steady and impressive. Scariano attributes this to more proactive attitudes toward health and preventative care. SoulCore has also grown organically through social media and word of mouth.
One thing SoulCore is not is a yoga practice. In fact, Scariano and Miller are eager to make clear that distinction, because it is one of their most commonly asked questions.
“We used to be frustrated, because it’s not just ‘Catholic yoga,’ ” says Scariano. SoulCore does not use any yoga poses or Sanskrit, the language associated with yoga. SoulCore is based on the rosary, a monotheistic philosophy, and belief in one true God. Yoga is rooted in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, which are not monotheistic.
Further, Scariano points out, “Eastern meditation is about emptying and opening ourselves, our minds up to whatever may come. SoulCore is about filling our mind and our spirit with reflection on the life of Christ, specifically through the rosary. One is emptying and one is filling.”
Lastly, Scariano notes that the SoulCore organization considers itself a Marian apostolate and specifically focuses on the rosary, which is Marian in prayer. “Our Lady’s whole purpose is to lead us to a closer relationship with Christ. We hope SoulCore is in line with that and [not with] anything that would lead us away,” she says.
The mental and emotional response
When researching the connection between fitness and faith, it’s impossible to ignore the emotional component. Only in recent decades have emotional and mental conditions been discussed more openly in mainstream culture, and Catholics are certainly part of the conversation.
Sister Kathryn Hermes is a Pauline nun, digital media producer, and survivor of depression. After suffering a stroke in 1984, Hermes started on a journey of deciphering her own mental well-being. Only 21 years old at the time, Hermes grappled with what her internal struggles meant in relation to her devotion to God and how she could reconcile the battle in her mind with the clear-eyed dedication to Christ in her heart.
“I was diagnosed with temporal epilepsy, which acts similarly to manic depression. . . . I went on medication and went strictly by the books. By that time I was 33 and everything that had been part of my young adult life was gone. The wild inspirations, energy, excitement, big highs and lows—gone with medication. I thought, ‘Well, who am I?’ ” says Hermes. “The whole journey of identity and finding myself [had] so many ups and downs. . . . I was waiting for God to speak to me. In the early years after the stroke, being angry with God, it felt like God was nowhere.”
Hermes wrote Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach (Pauline Books & Media) so that others might find help and guidance in dealing with their own mental and emotional challenges. Originally published in 2003, the book discusses her experience bridging the knowledge gap between therapeutic approaches outside or in addition to medications and using a faith-based framework to do the hard work of becoming self-aware. She set out to channel Catholic traditions and scripture that support the “inner cohesion” not addressed by simply treating the symptoms with medications.
“Usually through an examination of consciousness, reevaluating the last week or month, trying to locate the [triggering] event . . . and being with and welcoming the uncomfortable feelings, then I go to scripture, because there are so many entry points to move beyond your experience and find God’s experience. To find what God is actually doing within your life, that God is in control and at work,” Hermes says.
She has a master’s degree in theology and an advanced certificate in scripture, has studied spiritual direction, and has several years of spiritual development and personal experience to draw from. She is quick to point out that she is not a doctor nor does she offer medical or psychological advice. Instead, Hermes notes that her book, and others similar to it, offers an approach to thinking about depression that aligns with the Catholic faith. She does not claim or believe that her book is a substitute for proper medical care or advice. She believes the book provides a complementary framework and resources for “discussing the biological, psychological, environmental, and genetic components of the illness.” Her book and her work with people struggling with challenges are designed to work in tandem with therapy for those needing structure to their own spiritual and emotional work.
In the almost 20 years since first publishing Surviving Depression, Hermes has watched the health and wellness wave swell into regular discussion in today’s mainstream and Catholic cultures. She notes that the proliferation of options available to people can be overwhelming, but it can also be helpful if a person knows what to look for and is open to it.
“There is no ‘this one’ or ‘that one’ program. Every coach out there is their own version of basically the same stuff . . . which is to sit with your uncomfortable emotions, be there in a sustained way, and experience the presence of Jesus in a really powerful way,” says Hermes. “When I first wrote the book, I tried to clearly make it holistic in the sense that it’s not just a spiritual book. . . . The whole picture together—physical, emotional, spiritual, mental—helps you find your way forward.”
Hermes has continued to spread the message of overcoming personal challenges through personal insight, contemplative prayer with God, and self-awareness with the launch of HeartWork, an online resource hub that provides video courses, a private Facebook group, and one-on-one mentorship with Hermes as “ways to enter into deeper union with God, find greater peace and joy, live a life that is free, fulfilling, and fruitful.”
She adds, “I try to make sure whatever I present is biblically rounded and really connects a person in a real way to Jesus, so that Jesus sneaks up and surprises them.”
Faith and fitness are not only more connected than expected, but each also benefits from incorporating the other. Like a supportive gym buddy, faith and fitness are fine alone but better together. Zumba class may be helping me boost my heart rate, but doing so while honoring the strong and able body that God has given me boosts my spiritual heart.
This article also appears in the October 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 9, pages 12–17).
Image: Unsplash cc via Victor Freitas